In this video I discuss some of the questions I have around using words like “simplicity” when it comes to living out the Gospel in a consumer culture. With a nod to early Friends history, John Woolman, and some contemporary examples of the greening of capitalism, I argue that we need to form practices of resistance to these influences rather than assume there is any neutral space we can stand outside its influence. This is a call to swim upstream, rather than get out of the water. At the end I share one practice my wife and I have been working to do this year, we have decided to not buy new things. I’d love to hear your ideas and your own practices of resistance.
“To stand within a tradition does not limit the freedom of knowledge, but makes it possible.”
Hans Georg Gadamer
Today I spent a few hours working on my Mid-Program defense for my PhD program, I will be presenting it to my committee on May 14th. This entails laying out the key questions and motivations behind my research. It also includes what I’ve studied so far, where I am headed and how I will finish up (God help me!). It’s a good exercise but it’s rather grueling and kind of works against the way I am wired. When I was editing today I came across the word “denominations” which I had written awhile back and I instantly replaced it with the phrase “faith traditions.” Shocked by my initial response, I realized that I still have an allergy to the word.
I grew up Catholic, went to mass regularly, was baptized Catholic (as far as I know) and was confirmed as an adolescent. I did my time, literally, in parochial schools up through 8th grade and was devastated when my parents decided to stop going to mass and start taking us to some small store-front Charismatic church. I was by then pretty committed to my Catholic faith. Then I was indoctrinated in the non-denominational framework, where all denominations are evil! Boo!! And will steal your soul, because everyone in them is mindless and not really passionate about their faith, they just go because that’s where their parents went, or whatever.
I stopped believing this anti-denominational doctrine once I realized the importance of being a part of something bigger than one local congregation, and the amount of support, accountability, and richness of history involved with, well, denominations. But still, I don’t like the word. I prefer instead to talk about (faith) traditions for a couple reasons.
For one, the word denomination just has a bad rap for a lot of Americans. It sounds overly paternalistic, top-down and dated. Whereas tradition, at least to me, rings of something more alive, something that is potentially more organic and flat. Anyone can participate in a tradition. For instance, think of all those interested in aspects of the monastic tradition, who adopt this or that practice, but are not themselves wholly monastic.
A friend made a great point to me on twitter saying that denominations help to name something that would otherwise remain unnamed and unnamed things are ultimately untenable as movements. I think he was right to suggest the importance of naming something, this is a process we see happening again and again in the Bible. But still, the problem lies not in the fact of naming something, but rather that often everything can be lost but the name. Consequently, the denominational name simply becomes a placeholder for something that has become largely obsolete. Rather, tradition in the way I understand it stresses the (dis)continuity between our stories, the practices we engage in as Christians, our beliefs, and points to what texts, biblical and otherwise, are important in the formation of our communities.
Finally, denomination still signals, at least to me, a preference to structure and hierarchical authority. Here “denomination” is the opposite of “movement” or “organic.” A denomination was once a movement that has become top-heavy, bogged down by its irreplaceable and non-translatable history and text. Instead, a tradition is more like a way of perceiving our contemporary world and relating to our shared history, a way of interaction with and communication about God. It can remain fluid and translatable even when people within that tradition get caught up in denominational-isms.
This is what I like so much about the Quaker Everett Cattell who worked within the denominational structures of the Friends church, he was both a college president and a superintendent, but suggested that the heart of the tradition was not found in those structures but in the community’s organic relationship to God’s mission and fellowship with one another in the Spirit, both of which he felt would actually undercut our structures and challenge them to be re-thought according to our contemporary needs. My reading of Cattell is that he believed the only way to truly be a Quaker was to betray the structures in favor of obedience to God’s call to be for the world, and in doing so, we might in fact be truly Friends.
Following Cattell, I have very little interest in Quakerism, in as much as it is an ism. These things that are the “way we’ve always done them” can actually becomes obstacles to our believing in the power of God’s Spirit. The denominational nitty gritty, when it is left to its own devices and not rooted within the life of the tradition, only sustains structures often reinforcing the church’s role as a placeholder for our belief rather than a bottom-up community of people following God’s mission in the world. I want to be a part of a community that not only tells but also lives into the stories of those we call Quaker.
Adam Kotsko’s recent book, iek and Theology, is a great addition to the growing library of commentaries, introductions and appropriations surrounding Slavoj iek‘s philosophical work. It was only recently published in the States by T & T clark and it comes in the series “Philosophy and Theology,” which promises to be a pretty good series with upcoming titles covering Nietzsche, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Hegel, Heidegger and Badiou. I was pretty excited (and a bit surprised) to see “iek and Theology” this on the shelf of our local bookstore (Vroman’s) in Pasadena so I grabbed the last copy while I had the chance.
The book gives a general overview of iek’s work starting with Sublime Object of Ideology and moves all the way up to The Parallax View offering a stunningly thorough, yet never bogged down, tour of the key arguments and development of iek’s thought since 1989.
I’m currently working through Catholic theologian William T. Cavanaugh‘s book ((here is a listing of his bibliographic works), “Theo-Political Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism,” for a lecture I’m doing later this quarter. I cannot recommend this book enough to those of you who are doing work in the area of theology and politics. First, he suggests that politics in America requires a disciplined imagination, one where citizens respect borders, and contracts that don’t actually exist. He then traces out the historical development (in true genealogical fashion) of the nation-state as a competing soteriology to Christianity. Third, he moves on to deconstruct the idea that civil space is a neutral, or religion free, space within society, instead he makes the compelling point that civil space, or the public square (a la Neuhaus), is itself a secular theological construct. Finally, in the last chapter Cavanaugh looks to globalization not as the end of the nation-state (where the local gives way to a perceived diversity) but rather, he argues that globalization is an extension of the nation-state project which seeks to dominate the universal. Here globalization can be read as a secularized “catholicity.”At the end of every chapter Cavanaugh returns to the church and mines liturgical and sacramental resources for responding to this counter-theology.
Cattell’s understanding of authority is derived from Christ, who is the head of the church. He argues that there is a tendency in the church to choose some one authority over another. Christ as head relativizes arguments over authority of Scripture, tradition, Spirit, etc. Rather we must see the organic whole and each part functioning within the total organism, and each organ receiving its relative authority from that which is Christ (Cattell, 8). This statement sounds close to post-foundationalism (a philosophical-theological movement newly espoused the later half of the twentieth-century).
A friend sent this article by Wendell Berry the other day and said it was worth the read, he is right. The article looks at how our insatiable desire for more not only has adverse effects on our lives and economy but also on our environment. This limitlessness that’s rooted in an Englightenment mentality of progress is not only unchristian but ultimately destructive. He says,
The problem with us is not only prodigal extravagance but also an assumed limitlessness. We have obscured the issue by refusing to see that limitlessness is a godly trait. We have insistently, and with relief, defined ourselves as animals or as higher animals.?? But to define ourselves as animals, given our specifically human powers and desires, is to define ourselves as limitless animalswhich of course is a contradiction in terms. Any definition is a limit, which is why the God of Exodus refuses to define Himself: I am that I am.??
And his point is that we do need limits, that this is the way things really work. He writes:
It is the artists, not the scientists, who have dealt unremittingly with the problem of limits. A painting, however large, must finally be bounded by a frame or a wall. A composer or playwright must reckon, at a minimum, with the capacity of an audience to sit still and pay attention. A story, once begun, must end somewhere within the limits of the writers and the readers memory. And of course the arts characteristically impose limits that are artificial: the five acts of a play, or the fourteen lines of a sonnet. Within these limits artists achieve elaborations of pattern, of sustaining relationships of parts with one another and with the whole, that may be astonishingly complex. And probably most of us can name a painting, a piece of music, a poem or play or story that still grows in meaning and remains fresh after many years of familiarity.
Read the rest of the article, he uses Militon and Christopher Marlowes Tragical History of Doctor Faustus to help make his point. it’s very thought provoking and well argued.
Last week, I read James Wm. McClendon and James M. Smith’s book “Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism,” it’s a highly recommended book for anyone interested in religious language and rationality, ethics and theology. It is difficult to get through due to his heavey useage of philosophy, espeically JL Austin’s “Speech-Act Theory” but McClendon’s clear writing style helps to make this difficult subject matter more palatable. I was reading it in preparation for my upcoming presentation I’m working on for a Quaker conference in June. Questions of religious relativism and pluralism are certainly on my mind because of this and I have been on the lookout to see what others have said on the subject. One main question I have is “How do other traditions work through and deal with religious pluralism?” I’m recognizing that rationality, and how we make truth claims about our religious experiences and faith are essentially some of the main questions Quakerism now struggles with. That said, I found McClendon’s book somewhat of a dog to get through, but worth the effort (if you want a somewhat briefer read chapters 1, 2, 4 and 6). McClendon was a baptist/free-church theologian of the highest order: his three volume systematic theology is one of the best peace church theological resources we have from the past century. It’s a treasure trove. If you haven’t, please take a chance to read something by McClendon you won’t be disappointed. Here are a few standout quotes from the book:
If you haven’t heard by now (I heard from Halden), a group of (select) world renowned Evangelicals got together and compiled their own manifesto (or see the summary). I say ‘select’ because there are certain voices (namely any strongly conservative or liberal ones absent from the group). It’s not that I care whether they have conservatives, moderates, or liberals, involved in the project, but it seems to me that ‘Evangelicalism’ is the very thing that cannot have a manifesto unless is it a ‘select’ Evangelical manifesto. That is to say, the term Evangelical is so contested that at first glance it would seem you need a special theological swat team in order to nail the subject down. And it is firmly nailed down in a number of some areas, Bill Samuel summarizes some of theological stances in his post (and he also has some helpful criticisms here). Another area where it seems somewhat inflexible is, as Alan Wolf says in his essay for the Guardian, the being, among other things, aimed against Fundamentalists:
One of the most striking features of the Manifesto is the lengths to which its authors go to disassociate themselves from fundamentalism. Protestantism, they write, tends to veer off either in a mainline, liberal direction or in a reactionary, anti-modern one – evangelicalism must be understood as rejecting both. Their critique of the mainline tendencies is not surprising. Their harsh words toward fundamentalism are. Fundamentalism “tends to romanticize the past, some now-lost moment in time, and to radicalise the present, with styles of reaction that are personally and publicly militant to the point where they are sub-Christian.” Jerry Falwell is dead. One wonders, were he still alive, how he would react to other religious conservatives calling him “sub-Christian.”
Now, I don’t care much for fundamentalism (of any sort), any more than the next person (though I’m not sure fundamentalists would like themselves if they heard us describe them!), but why the need to have a document that sets out to do something like this? I’m just not sure why we would take the time to let everybody know who we are not!? If people can’t tell you’re not a fundamentalist, no manifesto will help you.
I’ve been really enjoying Peter Rollins blog lately and was struck by his recent post Did Jesus Speak Hoplandic? In the post he discusses Levinas’ theory about the act of saying something vs. the content of what was said. In it the question, “did Jesus speak Hoplandic” gets at the his point that “Jesus was someone who was always challenging us at the level of the said (taking what we thought was self evident and turning it upside down) so as to expose the nature of religious language as a mode of saying.” In other words, is our preoccupation for getting what is said down correctly disrupting our connection with who we are actually talking to (or about)? As Rollins says, Maybe Jesus was asking us to speak like children where what is most important is the actual connection that is made, not that that which is said. He makes this point, in a way I appreciated, by stating: